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Pros & Cons of Careers in Nonprofit Organizations

If you’ve longed to pair your professional expertise with a cause that’s close to your heart, applying for a job within the nonprofit sector may seem infinitely appealing.

Focused on a social cause-driven mission rather than financial gain, nonprofit careers offer an opportunity to earn a living while working toward a shared philanthropic goal. Whether you’re committed to climate change, education, healthcare, or another worthy endeavor, chances are you’ll find an opening that matches your skill set, as many careers in nonprofit organizations mirror those in the for-profit arena.

From coveted executive director positions to critical roles in accounting or marketing, finding a spot that allows you to demonstrate and develop your talents shouldn’t be too difficult. But are you ready to make the move?

Why People Switch to Idealistic Careers

People often find themselves considering idealistic careers when they’re facing one of two scenarios: Either they’re recently unemployed and see an opportunity to pursue a path they’re passionate about, or they recognize their current career isn’t as fulfilling as they’d hoped it would be. In both cases, workers may begin to eye the nonprofit sector as a possible solution.

But before writing a resignation letter in the hope of changing the world, it’s wise to weigh the benefits of working for a nonprofit against some of the challenges that often go hand-in-hand with careers in that sphere.

Benefits of Working for a Nonprofit

Here are a few of the pros of applying for a job with a nonprofit.

You’re Making a Difference

Probably the biggest (and most obvious) benefit that comes from working for a nonprofit organization is the potential to spend every day working on a social issue you’re passionate about. At the end of the day, week, or year, you can bask in the satisfaction that comes from knowing that all that work you’re putting in at the office is part of a broader solution.

You Can Be Compensated in Other Ways

While you might not pull down an enormous paycheck, you may be able to enjoy other benefits. Many nonprofit employers recognize that to attract the best talent, they have to be creative in helping to compensate for lower salaries.

Because of this, there may be more willingness to negotiate beyond salaries for benefits such as flexible work arrangements or more vacation days. And because many nonprofits are smaller with more collaborative environments, you may be better able to advocate for yourself if these perks aren’t immediately available.

Additionally, you may be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness as long as the not-for-profit organization is an eligible 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, or if its primary purpose is to provide certain types of qualifying public services.

As with any compensation package, don’t be afraid to negotiate to try to come to an arrangement that best meets your needs.

You Can Grow Faster Professionally

Because nonprofits frequently find themselves with fewer employees than for-profit companies, you may be able to take on new challenges and expand your skill set.

For example, if you’re the only person in the development department, you’ll likely gain experience quickly by performing tasks associated with a variety of roles. You also may be able to see the impact you’re making at a nonprofit sooner than you might at a larger corporation, especially if the organization is small. With limited resources at your disposal, you’ll have the opportunity to put your creativity to the test and experience the satisfaction of making do with less.

You might also find yourself with a more impressive title than you would elsewhere, as nonprofit employees tend to fulfill a variety of duties rather than have super-specific roles (think “Marketing Director” rather than “Email Marketing Specialist”).

You’ll Work with Like-Minded People

Finding yourself surrounded by colleagues with similar values who are enthusiastic about the same interest is an inherent perk of working at a nonprofit.

If you’re craving a sense of belonging in the workplace, you’re more likely to find it in a nonprofit as a sense of community and a common bond are often byproducts of working for the same cause.

You might also find ways to expand your network. Whether you’re working on a campaign with a political figure or rubbing elbows at a gala with a famous artist or celebrity who shares your dedication to the cause, nonprofits often open doors to new worlds, new mindsets, and new opportunities.

Cons of Working for a Nonprofit

Now let’s take a look at a few downsides of working in the nonprofit sector.

You Might Not Make a Fortune

Because nonprofits typically depend on donations, grants, and government contracts, salaries in this sector tend to be lower than their for-profit counterparts. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t earn a decent living or reach your financial goals.

Higher paying jobs in nonprofits can be found in management, development, marketing and communications, finance, and policy, typically in larger size organizations (budgets usually over $5 million) that may also have larger presence/reach (e.g., national organizations).

It is important for you to explore, evaluate and identify how you want to live and what your salary and investment strategy should be to reach those goals. Consider working with a financial advisor to help you plan accordingly.

You May Have Limited Resources

Especially at a smaller nonprofit, money, people, and materials are often limited. That means you might lack the funds you may be used to for things like tools, software programs, and training to help get your group to the next level.

Doing more with less and wearing multiple hats can lead to exhaustion and burnout if you’re not careful. Consider your personality: Do you enjoy rolling up your sleeves and finding innovative solutions with limited resources? If the answer is “no,” this sector may cause unwanted stress.

You’ll Need to Manage Expectations

Just because you’ve started working in the nonprofit sector, doesn’t mean you’re going to change the world the next day. If you’re prone to disappointment or frustration when you can’t see a tangible or immediate outcome, that can be tough.

One solution? Find an organization with great leaders who’ll help recognize the impact you’re making. Understanding how you’re making a difference each day can help keep you motivated by making a connection to the work you’re doing and your end goal, especially in the moments when you’re not seeing an immediate outcome.

Consider Volunteering as a First Step

Can’t decide if you’re ready to make the leap to a new career? There are plenty of ways to support your favorite cause and discover whether you’d like to work to support it in the meantime.

Though volunteering for a project is different from a day-to-day job, you’ll meet the people who work there and see how they enjoy it. You’ll also get a feel for the organization’s culture. Serving on an organization or foundation’s board is another opportunity to see if it’s the right fit.

Junior boards, which don’t require large time or financial commitments, are a perfect first step. Pro bono work is another great way to gain a glimpse from the inside while building your resume should you choose to apply down the line.

And while all of that is a good start, having informational interviews and, better yet, shadowing someone can be even more eye-opening.

Nonprofit Job Boards

If you’re ready to start looking, or just interested in seeing what opportunities are available to you, check out job boards like these:

•  The Bridgespan Group
•  LinkedIn
•  Idealist
•  Philanthropy.com

Still not sure if a nonprofit is right for you? If you’re a SoFi member, sign up for a complimentary one-on-one session with a career coach, who can help you with any aspect of your career. Not a SoFi member yet? Head to SoFi.com to learn more.


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